Note: In April of 2012, I published a story on the subject of anonymity amongst restaurant critics. It was presented on a now-defunct website called OpenFile. The story included interviews with Passable’s own Melissa Buote and former NYT critic Sam Sifton. Unfortunately, the site is now down, and so the story was no longer available online. Since its publication, anonymity has become less and less used by restaurant critics, with most recently New York Magazine’s Adam Platt plastering his face on the cover of said magazine. I thought it would be interesting to republish the story and ask once again: what is the role of anonymity in restaurant criticism today?
In 2005, Ruth Reichl published, “Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life Of A Critic in Disguise” about her experience as restaurant critic for The New York Times. In it she details the myriad ways – wigs, costumes and makeup lessons – she worked to make herself as anonymous as possible.
But is it possible to be anonymous as a food critic when social media and our increased online presence has changed the way we – and let others – view our lives? Facebook and Twitter have changed the way we curate our private lives. For most people, this is a non-issue, but for food critics, staying anonymous has always been a major concern.
“I think that the reader of a restaurant review wants the person to be an everyman (or everywoman) who gets the same treatment they do, and nine times out of ten, that experience is an anonymous one,” says Melissa Buote. Melissa is the food critic for The Coast and has been writing about food for the past two and half years. (Full disclosure: Buote and I also write for the same food blog, Passable.ca) To maintain her anonymity, Melissa has made changes in her life. She strictly limits access to her Facebook profile, even using a pseudonym, and her Twitter profile shows the image of a cat. “There is an idea that privacy doesn’t exist anymore, but that’s only true insofar as you let it be true,” says Melissa. “Yes, it’s impossible to be completely anonymous. But that has always been true to some extent. You will always meet people or be put in social situations where a friend-of-a-friend knows who you are, or someone can point you out to a stranger, be that a server in a restaurant, a chef or just a random person on the street—and that it’s-a-small-worldness is amplified in smaller cities like Halifax.”
Sam Sifton, former critic for the New York Times (Image via Food Republic)
And that’s the key here. In terms of population and dining options, Halifax is a relatively small city. It’s not like New York where restaurateurs will do everything in their power to find out what food critics look like. Sam Sifton should know. He recently finished his two-year stint as restaurant critic for the New York Times. “I always reserved under a false name,” he explains. “My cell phone numbers were fake, or only led to my line through proxies. I had credit cards registered under more than a half-dozen names, and I changed all these regularly. I had a few disguises, though these rarely worked more than once.” Sifton even found himself hounded by photographers when he announced that he would check out KFC’s Double Down. Although he found the attention a little strange, he still believes in the importance of anonymity, or at least, as much as it is possible in today’s world. “Anonymity is going to be increasingly difficult to achieve, given the popularity of Facebook and other social media outlets that allow people to post pictures of themselves,” he says. “You can disable these accounts if you want to become critic. But the security’s porous. The Web’s wide. Photos are going to get out. It’s best just to follow our rules and hope for the best.” But what happens when your image does get out there? Does such a thing matter in a place like Halifax?